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Striking the right chords

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Kala Ramnath was recently conferred with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her contribution to the Hindustani Instrumental Music – Violin. Sunny Rodricks speaks with the violinist about her love for the instrument and her passion for Indian music

Sitting gracefully with the violin perched on her shoulder is Kala Ramnath, a torch-bearer for the Mewati Gharana. With a smile on her face, she is poised and ready to enthral the audience with her skill on the instrument. Since she is known for producing evocative music, her violin has been dubbed ‘the singing violin’. She recently received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for her contribution to Hindustani Instrumental Music, a prestigious achievement, and so we caught up with her to talk about her journey thus far.

Tell us about your latest album, Yashila-Reflections.

Yashila is a group that I created in 2006 with Abhijit Banerjee and Somnath. The music was created with world flavours using Indian Ragas and world rhythms produced by indigenous Indian percussion instruments. The first album Yashila-Drive East was a huge success! We followed that up with another set of compositions in the second album Yashila-Reflections, which also turned out to be hugely popular.

You were the first Indian violinist ever to be featured in the violin Bible, The Strad. What do you have to say about that?

I feel honoured and happy. What else!

You have performed at places such as the Sydney Opera House, Paris’s Théâtre de la Ville, London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, Singapore’s Esplanade, New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany. Is there any venue or audience that is close to your heart?

I love all the venues in India such as the Sawai Gandharva Festival in Pune and Doverlane in Kolkata. The response and reaction of the audience is completely different in India vis-a-vis in other countries due to their way of appreciation, which is also very warm and encouraging. However, personally I like the Indian response best, which is very spontaneous.

Tell us more about your foundation, Kalashree.

Kalashree works with underprivileged children in Kolkata, teaching them music in order to help build their personality and give them something to look forward to, with respect to a livelihood through music. I also started a foundation in the US, which works with children suffering from cancer.

It is said that as a child you were bribed with sweets and candy to practise the violin? Is there any truth to this?

I started playing the violin when I was two-and-a-half years old. To hold my interest, my grandfather would bribe me with sweets and candy to get me to practise, as I could not sit for more than three to five minutes in the beginning.

You are a seventh-generation violinist! How do you feel about taking the family legacy forward?

I feel blessed.

You use Hindustani Classical Music, especially your violin, to help sick children. How do you go about this?

I try to work with Indian ragas to help ease depression, insomnia and headaches in children with cancer.

Tell us about an incident or two where your music has changed someone’s life or brought happiness in a child’s life?

There is a lady in Nice, France, who adopted a girl from Nepal, but the child was always sad and did not smile until she was a year old. The first time she smiled was when she heard my violin and by the time she turned two-years-old, she could pick up my CDs from a stack without knowing it was me and could recognise my music style from the rest. Today she must be a young lady of about 15 years of age.

How are Indian violinists different from their western counterparts? What are the finger tricks and techniques that you perform to produce different and unique tunes with the violin?

There are not many violinists in North India because this instrument is not very popular there. However, in the South, the violin is famous as it is a solo as well as an accompanying instrument in concerts. So, the techniques are well developed there. And in fact, whatever we have in the North in terms of technique comes from South India.

As far as I’m concerned, I learnt the technique from my grandfather and from my aunt, Rajam. I try to emulate vocal music in totality, by making full use of the bow for a full flowing technique, apart from using my playing hand, where I use the right fingers with the glides and slides to produce a sound akin to vocal music.

A Grammy for your album, Miles from India, and now the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award! What’s next for you as a violinist and a musician?

Awards will come when they are destined to. I just want to keep playing at my best, improving all the time and taking our divine music to everyone and every nook and corner of this earth. I also want to propagate this God-given art by teaching it to the next generation to keep it alive.

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